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Derrick Davey
Fine Music, May 2007

Jelly Roll Morton was a colourful character—a dandy, gambler, pimp, club manager and braggart who was described as being so crooked that he couldn’t lie straight in bed. He was also one of the best ragtime pianists in the early 1900s and, more importantly, was one fo the best and most successful early jazz composers and arrangers.

Although a professional pianist from about 1900, he did not record until 1923, and in the following seven years made many records for the Victor Company, establishing himself as the best of the early New Orleans style composers/arrangers. Now Naxos Jazz Legends has released twenty recordings from this period; five piano solos and fifteen featuring the Red Hot Peppers.

The early Red Hot Peppers were a seven-piece group with cornet, clarinet, trombone and four rhythms, including the leader on piano. Morton’s arranging style was characterised by short solos within an inventive framework of involved arranged passages. The fast numbers generate a considerable head of steam, and typical of this is the 1926 recording of Black Bottom Stomp in which Morton created space for two cornet solos, two from clarinetist Omer Simeon, piano and banjo solos (frantic strumming by Johnny St Cyr) and a trombone break all interspersed with tricky section work from the rest of the band. These recordings indicate that he always insisted that the band members were technically proficient and well rehearsed—not always the case in 1920s New Orleans recordings.

As an arranger he sometimes used an array of props such as in ‘Sidewalk Blues’ when he incorporated traffic noises, car horns and shouts from ‘pedestrians’. There are some excellent soloists, particularly clarinetist Omer Simeon and cornet player George Mitchell who, when using a mute, sounds extraordinarily like Muggsy Spanier. But I find Morton’s piano solos less than inspiring, even when he solos within the full band the excitement drops.

By the end of the decade, the Red Hot Peppers had grown to twelve, with two trumpeters, a trombonist, four reed players and four rhythms, and the overall effect is jaunty swing with more modern voicing. As an arranger, Morton used the ‘call and response’ technique pioneered by Fletcher Henderson, and as he grew further away from the New Orleans style, he used fewer soloists, more involved arranged passages and the music begins to sound more ‘swing’ than jazz.

By the 1930s the party was over. Morton lost his record contract, the Depression was deepening, his style seemed anachronistic compared to the burgeoning slick swing bands, and he made only a handful of records in 1938 before his death a couple of years later. Ironically, the trad revival movement was then just gathering momentum and many lesser New Orleans style pioneers profited from the renewed interest in ‘mouldy fyge’ music.

As usual with this series, full details are published in the accompanying booklet, plus an interesting potted history of the leader. There is considerable surface noise on some solo piano recordings; otherwise the results are good.

Jelly Roll Morton’s high position in the New Orleans jazz world was not gained as a pianist, but was because of his composing and arranging skills, and this is an excellent showcase of Morton’s Red Hot Peppers during their few short years.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group